WHAT ARE THE CHANCES THAT PUTIN WILL LOSE POWER AND CONTROL IN RUSSIA OVER THE WAR IN UKRAINE, AND HOW MIGHT THAT HAPPEN?

Thomas Wood
8 min readMay 21, 2023

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Over the last year or so, I have learned to pay special attention to the words and actions of Igor Girkin (aka Igor Strelkov).

Girkin, a former Federal Security Service (FSB) officer, led Russia’s effort to annex Crimea in 2014 and then organized pro-Russian militias in the Donbas. He has been a severe critic of Vladimir Putin and the Russian Ministry of Defense, particularly Shoigu and Gerasimov.

Girkin is zealously pro-war, not anti-war. He has also believed, almost from the outset, that Russia would lose disastrously in Ukraine if it didn’t fully mobilize for war. Girkin believes it is necessary to replace the military leadership of Shoigu and Gerasimov, whom he has assailed publicly as incompetent.

I pay close attention to Girkin, because his pessimism about the Russian war effort has, time and again, been shown to be justified, down to the details. Indeed, Girkin seems to have been almost infallible in his analyses and predictions — a pretty remarkable record, given that the war is well over a year old.

The accuracy of his predictions and analyses is likely due to the fact that, as a high-ranking veteran of the pro-Russian military efforts in Ukraine, he knows other former veterans with contacts on the front lines who have provided him with insights and intel about Russia’s real (versus hyped) capabilities and performance on the ground.

According to Mark Galeotti, a noted expert on the Russian military, security services, and Putin’s wars: “Some [military bloggers] are very dubious sources but there are also those — like Girkin — who know what they’re talking about and clearly are in touch with people at the front or who otherwise are in the know.” https://tinyurl.com/2f8ym2q4

These days, Girkin is not just pessimistic about Russia’s prospects in the war: he is almost apocalyptically gloomy about them.

Reuters (23 April 2023) reported: https://tinyurl.com/2n38oajr

“Pro-war Russian nationalists led by Igor Girkin said … that a new group they had set up was entering politics to save Russia, which they warned was in danger of turmoil or even collapse due to military failures in the Ukraine war.

“A systemic crisis is brewing in Russia — or it is already in the grip of crisis — while the temperature of society is rising,” Girkin told Reuters. “We are on the cusp of very grave internal political changes of a catastrophic character.”

“All healthy forces need to create organizations which will take part in the political battle which is inevitable — and which has already started,” he said.

Girkin told reporters that it was clear that the battle for the “post-Putin” era had already begun inside the Russian elite.

“Our task is either to help our country avoid the turmoil that is approaching or to create those positions on which we will act in that turmoil to prevent the destruction of Russia as a state and as a unique civilisation,” Girkin said.

@wartranslated reported on the same announcements. He said that another important member of the group, Pavel Gubarev, was equally dire. “Regardless of their intentions, none of the Club members appear to see a positive outcome for the Russian army in the current circumstances: ‘We came to the line, beyond which there is a feeling of abyss.’” https://tinyurl.com/2jcrfgwp

The membership of Girkin’s small group, called the “Angry Patriots Club,” is a very odd assortment that includes national-bolsheviks, national-democrats, communists, and monarchists; but any differences, they say, are forgotten in favor of one goal — ‘to win the war’”.

Girkin’s Club is pro-war and opposes any move towards Westernization, a possibility which it sees as a major threat now and as an even bigger threat should the war in Ukraine turn decisively against Russia.

Excerpt from the Institute for the Study of War (8 Apr 2023): https://tinyurl.com/2hjrtpp4

“Members of [Girkin’s] club stated that Russia will imminently face defeat in Ukraine and may experience a pro-Western coup or civil war if Moscow does not drastically improve the situation on the frontlines. The members claimed that Russian officials are unable to improve the war effort and its effects on Russian society because most Kremlin officials belong to an anti-war faction. The anti-war faction reportedly advocates for a peace settlement with the West to regain access to its overseas wealth and is not actively attempting to improve the war effort — not out of a fundamental disagreement with war aims or genuine desire for peace. The club claimed that it seeks to help Russian authorities — likely implying the pro-war grouping within the Kremlin — complete the “special military operation” in a timely manner, claiming that a protracted war in Ukraine could prompt the anti-war officials to revolt. The group also stated that it is attempting to build a defense “network to resist a coup in Russia in such an event. 11]

How likely is it that there will be, as Girkin fears, a *Western-oriented* turn in Russian affairs if Ukraine starts winning decisively? The Western commentariat is almost unanimous in holding that the chances of that happening are low to non-existent. But Girkin and his Club disagree, and there are good reasons to think they are right.

First of all, the war in Ukraine has already been a disaster for Russia. Can any sane person believe that more war — especially a vastly escalated war — will help? That would just compound the disaster, because it is pretty clear now that the West is going to support Ukraine as long as it takes — and there is no way that Russia can win a protracted conflict with the West. It simply does not have the military, financial, and industrial resources to do so. (Just do the math.)

PUTIN, THE WEST, THE OLIGARCHS, AND A CORRUPT MILITARY

Girkin et al. think that they have identified one faction in Russia that could act to undermine Putin’s autocratic control of the country (though no names are given) and work for alignment with the West: oligarchs who are *not* close to Putin. Girkin believes that this pro-Western faction in Russia is actually the most powerful one in the Kremlin — not because it thinks of Ukraine in any different way than Putin does, but for other reasons.

It is only reasonable to think there is such a faction in the Russian power structure, and that it could potentially be very powerful and a real threat to Putin.

The Western commentariat has tended to dismiss oligarchs as possible centers of resistance to the Putin regime, because of an early agreement with Putin when he assumed the presidency in which Putin promised that he would allow them to keep their ill-gotten, kleptocratic riches as long as they did not interfere in political affairs.

That agreement has held so far, but it is only viable as long as Putin can maintain authoritarian control of the country and therefore provide the necessary security for the oligarch’s assets. But if things start falling apart in the face of a highly successful Ukrainian counteroffensive — as Girkin et al. have predicted — all the bets are off. If that happens, the oligarchs will start looking out for, and advancing, their own interests.

Significantly, some Putin-affiliated oligarchs have already done so. Gazprom, the state-controlled gas company that is headed by Alexey Miller, an old Putin crony; and Rosneft, headed by Igor Sechin, who has known and worked with Putin since their days together in the St Petersburg mayor’s office, have already started forming their own PMCs (private military corporations), presumably in order to be better prepared to defend their enormously valuable personal assets in case Putin starts to lose control.

MIller (Gazprom) and Sechin (Rosneft) are too closely dependent on and tied in with Putin to break with him, even if they wanted to. But we know that there are other oligarchs in Russia, like Oleg Deripaska and Rinat Akhmetov, who have been strong (though not publicly outspoken) critics of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, who would certainly break with him if they thought their own personal fortunes and prospects lay in that direction.

Furthermore, the oligarchs have to be concerned about the Western sanctions. If they remain in place very long, they will eventually make it impossible for Russia to develop the advanced technology that it needs and will turn the country into a third world economy. And the West is not going to lift the sanctions as long as Putin or Putinists are in power in Russia.

So everything depends on whether Putin can continue to maintain autocratic control of the country. If that fails, the dissident oligarchs can start developing their own PMCs. (They certainly have the money to do it.) And if Russian military discipline and morale, which are already low, continue to decline, these other oligarchs will be able to buy the military capabilities they need.

During the turbulent 1990s, after the USSR had collapsed, that in fact is exactly how oligarchs like Roman Abramovich and Michael Khodarkovsky seized and maintained wealth and power in Russia. They often made deals with the vory (criminal underworld) and corrupt military officers (many of whom made deals with the vory themselves). The level of corruption in Russia in the 1990s shocked observers around the world, but that level of corruption is still present, just waiting to be exploited if things start falling apart again.

The Russian military was woefully unprepared for the war in Ukraine due to military incompetence, and corruption had a lot to do with it. After the invasion had already been launched, it was discovered that much of the materiel needed for the war effort had been sold (embezzled). Much of the military equipment that was available was also defective, because it had not been properly maintained (again, because of corruption, graft, and embezzlement).

It should be noted here that this continues to be a problem. Yesterday, for example,
@IgorSushko reported the following: https://tinyurl.com/2jce8cuj

“Retired Russian Air Force General Vyacheslav Lobuzko was paid to set up the national air defense system against cruise missiles and ballistic missiles in Russia. Turns out the system doesn’t work because he embezzled the money. He was arrested earlier this month.”

TO CONCLUDE:

Girkin has suggested two ways in which Putin might lose control and power in Russia: a Kremlin palace coup or a civil war (that is, political and civil chaos, including massive violence). Of the two possibilities, the latter seems to me to be the more likely one (or at least to be the first to happen), given that Putin is adept at surrounding himself with toadies and loyalists. But neither possibility can be dismissed.

The Western commentariat, almost without exception, continues to maintain that the likelihood of Putin losing power is remote; and that, even if that happens, it would only be because Putin would be replaced by someone who is even more nationalistic, anti-Western, imperialistic, and dangerous than he is.

Clearly, Girkin and his group don’t see things that way…and neither should we.

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Thomas Wood

The Resistance. Vote Blue: True Blue American. We look forward, they look back. We’re progressive, they’re regressive. @twoodiac